Has social media revolutionized revolutions?

February 16th, 2011

Both the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions may not have been possible without Mark Zuckerberg.

Anti-government protestors used Facebook to organize huge demonstrations in the streets of Tunis and Cairo. Then when Ben Ali and Mubarak began cracking down on media outlets, protestors used hashtags on Twitter to let the world know what was going on. And when the security forces started shooting at civilians, they took videos of the violence and put them on YouTube.

These social media platforms allowed the entire world to watch – and even take part in – two revolutions in a matter of weeks. And as the revolutionary fervor continues to spread throughout the Middle East, protestors from Algeria to Iran are using the same strategies to overthrow their own corrupt authoritarian dictators.

It almost seems as though if you want to start a revolution, all you need is a Facebook, a Twitter and a YouTube account. But how, exactly, does social media facilitate revolutionary movements?

A Syrian man connects on his Facebook account at an internet cafe, in Damascus, Syria, on Feb. 8. (AP)

Firstly, they promote social awareness. Anyone with a pair of eyes and access to the Internet (and, preferably, a camera) can be a journalist, which is particularly helpful when your professional news outlets are being controlled or suppressed by the government. And of course, social awareness is also a prerequisite for social action. People first need to know what’s going on in order to act.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly,  social media allow you to tap into your social networks, which are the building blocks of revolutions. After all, revolutions aren’t carried out by random strangers – they’re carried out by families and friends.

It takes a lot of guts to step out into the streets and face government soldiers with guns, batons and tear gas. You’re only going to do that with people you trust – people that are in your social network. That’s why Facebook is such a powerful organizing tool.

Social media and its focus on the mobilization of individual social networks also explains the leaderless grassroots nature of the protest movements that carried out the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. This lack of a formal leadership structure has been perhaps the key strength of the revolutionary movements. No matter who the government arrests, the spirit of the protestors cannot be broken.

By putting all the power in the hands of the people, the rise of social media seems to have revolutionized the revolution.